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Group Efforts: seeing through the eyes of the gentrified

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Jenny Sheppard was a regular customer at the Mystery Spot, a vintage furniture and curio shop located on the rapidly changing stretch of West Division in Wicker Park. When the store went out of business in February, the 31-year-old artist and musician figured it was at least partly due to neighborhood gentrification, and she thought that topic was worth discussing with a group of Wells High School students she instructs through Street-Level Youth Media.

Street-Level was founded seven years ago to provide city teens with a safe place to go after school and the resources to create art. Often working in partnership with Gallery 37--which allows the teens to be paid for participating--Street-Level focuses on video making, computer-based art, and media literacy, with the aim of fostering self-expression through technology. The group hosts a multitude of programs both at its three storefront multimedia centers and inside the Chicago school system. Street-Level provides lots of public forums for participants' work, including its annual block party, a free outdoor event that features music, performance, large-format video projection on sheets hung across streets, and video and computer monitors installed on curbs, stoops, and porches.

The mostly Latino high school students in Sheppard's group live in the same West Town neighborhood as the Mystery Spot and, says Sheppard, "they relate to the issue of feeling ostracized by the incoming culture." In the public-access spirit of the block parties, they've put together an installation for the Mystery Spot storefront named "Division Street, USA" (a reference to Studs Terkel's Division Street: America), which brings together four short videos that deal with "ideas of beauty and value as societal constructs based on material worth."

One animated video features a relaxed cat and a vicious, charging dog that fight in front of the Mystery Spot as dollar signs roll by. The dog wins, and luxury condos with roosting vultures materialize in place of the shop. Another, shot as if the viewer were performing the action, shows hands unwrapping a shiny, garish package that conceals a container of white ice cream. Then the perspective shifts and a dark-lipsticked Latina mouth delicately consumes the ice cream with an acerbic smile. According to Sheppard, both videos explicitly illustrate the frustration the kids feel over the changes in their neighborhood.

She says this is "the first time these kids have considered they have a voice people might want to hear," and they've chosen to screen the videos where they may be seen by the key targets of their anger. Sheppard says that her students are directly challenging the passersby to "consider the impact of gentrification on the character of a neighborhood and the people who live in it."

Each video will screen in a continuous loop on its own monitor, and all four will play simultaneously. "Division Street, USA" runs March 28 through 30 from 7:30 PM to midnight at 2048 W. Division. A video of photos taken by a Young Chicago Authors group that deal with similar issues of displacement will also be projected in the window.

--Liz Armstrong

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